Lichtenstein: Carlesimo Had To Go, But Why Does King Still Reign?

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By Steve Lichtenstein
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What chutzpah.

Not that Nets general manager Billy King was wrong to remove both parts of interim coach P.J. Carlesimo’s title on Sunday.

There really was no coming back for Carlesimo after the Nets lost their very winnable first-round playoff series, 4-3, to the depleted Bulls.  Not only did the Nets falter at home in a Game 7; Carlesimo’s fate was sealed after his club’s colossal choke job at the end of Game 4, when he looked helpless as Chicago roared back from a 14-point deficit in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter and eventually won in triple overtime.

You won’t find too many coaches who find redemption after something like that.  Think Grady Little and the 2003 Red Sox.

No, the Nets needed to at least become the ninth team in NBA history to climb out of a 3-1 series hole for Carlesimo to return as permanent boss.

Or did they?

According to King, the axing was NOT related to the Nets’ early postseason exit.  Instead, “it was more of an evaluation of the whole season.”

Then again, I don’t know how much truth there is to anything King says.

After all, this is the same guy who tried to convince everyone that he only wanted to lottery-protect the top three selections in the 2012 draft in the acquisition of forward Gerald Wallace from Portland because King didn’t believe there were any impact players further down in the draft.

Oh, by the way, the NBA recently awarded its 2012-13 Rookie of the Year to Damian Lillard–the sixth pick, taken by, you guessed it, Portland.

But the larger point is that if job maintenance was contingent on overall performance this season, how in the world did King finagle his way to a contract extension — while the Nets were still involved in the playoffs?

In case you weren’t aware, the players who came up short against Chicago were all King’s men.

Last summer, King committed about $330 million of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s vast bank account for player contracts to remake a franchise left for dead in Newark and reincarnated this season in Brooklyn.

Of course, it was King who chose to assemble that wretched crew in the first place just so he could clear the salary cap slate in time for the new city order.

So call me unimpressed by the Nets’ year-to-year improvement in the standings.  In the NBA, all it takes is the addition of one franchise player to turn around a team’s fortunes, be it from a trade (Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul), free agency (LeBron James) or the draft (LeBron James).

Surely a team featuring Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Wallace would be superior to one that had Williams surrounded by Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson and Sheldon Williams.

But the view of this current configuration isn’t so alluring once you delve further under the microscope.  For starters, where is the room for growth?

Take a look at the Nets’ Game 7 box score.  How many of the 12 active players have significant upside?

Lopez could certainly improve his defensive performance and efficiency on his post moves, and maybe the next coach can figure out how to make some use of MarShon Brooks and-or Mirza Teletovic.

That’s pretty much it.

Even worse, King’s roster is rife with one-dimensional players.  Every night we wondered whether Carlesimo would load up his rotation with his preferred defensive-oriented lineups, utilizing low-skilled players like Reggie Evans and Keith Bogans, or go for broke on offense with guys like Brooks and Andray Blatche.  No wonder the Bulls gave the Nets fits, what with their ability to spread the floor with offensive threats at every position without sacrificing much on the defensive end.

And, to come full circle to what the Nets’ next move might be, what elite coach would want to take over this group, especially when he would also have to consider the Nets’ luxury tax limitations that restrict the Nets from making further improvement this offseason? (No sign-and-trades, a mini-mid-level exception that they might have to use to retain Blatche or sign Euro star Bojan Bogdanovich.  It appears the Nets only valuable asset might be Humphries’ $12 million contract that expires after the 2013-14 season.)

Phil Jackson?

Go ahead and make the call.  Unless Jackson is like the Dax Shepard lawyer character in Luke Wilson’s underrated “Idiocracy,” whose mantra was, “I like money,” I wouldn’t bet that Jackson would find the Nets’ job a good fit.

Other possible candidates include Jerry Sloan (whose first marriage to Williams ended in a somewhat bitter separation) and the Van Gundy brothers (I’d prefer Stan, who seemed to grasp the current offensive wave by valuing three-point shooters while with Orlando).  King also did not rule out tabbing someone without prior head coaching experience, though that seemed to go against the grain of what the inmates inside the locker room were holding out for.

Although I don’t think they even know what they want.  They hated playing for Avery Johnson, who was axed in December after a swoon dropped the Nets to 14-14.  Carlesimo seemed to be more appreciated on a personal level within the organization—he had a better nature, including a sense of humor.  He was sent off with a thank you for righting the Nets’ ship, leading them to a 35-19 record and the fourth seed in the East.

But we just witnessed why Carlesimo’s teams have never made it out of the first round in four attempts.  When the word around the league is that your team wilts at adversity, the coach is ultimately responsible.

There was just no way the Nets were going to let that continue, not with Prokhorov’s stated goal of bringing a championship team to Brooklyn.  To get to the next level, the Nets are going to need a big-name coach—and some better players (like maybe someone who can drain at least 40 percent of short-corner threes).

King mentioned in Sunday’s press conference that Brooklyn has become “an attractive market” for prospective players—the big question is whether someone with a strong coaching pedigree agrees with that sentiment as long as King reigns over the Nets.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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